Primetime TV’s seismic shift from SAG to AFTRA representation is credited as one of the driving forces behind the efforts to merge the two actors unions. The current broadcast pilot season, which coincides with the voting period for SAG and AFTRA members on the merger proposal, is once again dominated by AFTRA, but SAG is gaining ground. TV pilots’ shift from SAG to AFTRA affiliation happened overnight in the spring of 2009 when, fearing a possible SAG strike, TV studios went from 90%-plus SAG representation for their pilots the year before to 90%-plus AFTRA affiliation. The next year, 2010, marked the peak of AFTRA pilot dominance, with all but one pilot in the smaller union’s column. Last year, AFTRA started to loosen its grip, with SAG’s market share rising to 11%. Judging by the data I have assembled so far, SAG’s pilot representation has climbed to 20% this pilot season (17 out of 86 pilots). While still dominated by AFTRA, SAG at least is slowly inching toward parity.
Early AFTRA adopter Sony Pictures TV once again went 100% AFTRA, joined this year by 20th Century Fox TV. For a third consecutive year, CBS TV Studios had one SAG-represented pilot, Widow Detective, while Universal TV, ABC Studios and Warner Bros. TV all increased the number of SAG-affiliated pilots this year. Universal TV, Warner Bros TV and ABC Studios have five each: dramas Mockingbird Lane and Notorious and comedies Friday Night Dinner, Isabel and Next Caller (Universal TV), dramas Scruples, The Carrie Diaries and Cult and comedies Prodigy/Bully and Partners (Warner Bros.), and dramas Americana, Beauty And The Beast, Nashville and Devious Maids and comedy The Manzanis (ABC Studios).
Interestingly, the new kids on the broadcast pilot block went all-SAG. Both Lionsgate TV pilots, Nashville and Next Caller, are with SAG, as is FX Prods.’ Fox comedy Living Loaded. Lionsgate, whose cable series are predominantly SAG, made a big push into broadcast development this season, which resulted in two pilot orders, while FX’s production arm ventured into producing broadcast projects for the first time this cycle. Also surprising this year was the appearance by multi-camera comedies (Partners, The Manzanis) on the list of SAG-represented pilots as sitcoms were among the first to embrace digital filming technology that allows studios to go with either SAG or AFTRA. (The use of 35mm is still exclusive SAG jurisdiction).
Going with one actors union vs. the other is often a choice of the pilot’s director, and once again big-time directors opted for SAG-affiliation. Phillip Noyce, who went with SAG for his ABC pilot Revenge last season, did it again with Americana this year. Other pilots directed by feature helmers that chose SAG include Bryan Singer (Mockingbird Lane), Michael Sucsy (Scruples), Davis Guggenheim (Widow Detective) and RJ Cutler (Nashville).
Another interesting fact: despite being a minority, SAG-represented pilots have had better success rate in going to series than their AFTRA counterparts. Last year, six of the nine SAG-affiliated pilots, Smash, Whitney, Suburgatory, Revenge, A Gifted Man and The Finder, or 67%, went to series. For AFTRA pilots, the pilot-to-series ratio was 43%.